A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre – Review

a-spy-among-friends-lst133169Kim Philby was the Charles Foster Kane of spies: a labyrinth without a centre, a simulacrum of a human being, all reflection and no original.

You’d think there was nothing new to be said about all this, but this book (and linked documentary) has a fair crack at it. As time goes by, more and more of the once-too-secret stuff is revealed. It was only in the 80s that Thatch revealed Blunt as the 4th Man in the Cambridge spy ring, and back then none of the damage Philby did was really in the public domain. Make no mistake: Philby arranged for lots of people to be killed, hundreds of them. So is there anything new to add?

In this case, there’s a recording of the time Philby was “braced” by his friend Nicholas Elliott in a Beirut hotel room. The game was up, the gaff was blown, and a few days later, Philby faded away to Moscow. From the base of this recorded conversation, and the long-term friendship it ended, Macintyre retells the story of Philby. In this version, Burgess and Maclean are peripheral characters, Blunt barely registers, and the fifth man makes no appearance. But there are familiar characters: Otto (Arnold Deutsch), the recruiter; Theo Maly, the agent runner (who was summoned back to Moscow to be purged, knew it, and still went); Litzi Friedmann, the first Mrs Philby, and so on.

The Profumo affair of 1963, the Chatterly Trial, the Beatles’ first LP, all that, are our familiar landmarks on the road to the destruction of the British establishment—but for sheer embarrassment, there is nothing like the head of Soviet counterintelligence turning out to be a Soviet spy. And how did he get away with it? Because he went to a posh school and a top university, Philby was considered to be above reproach (as were Burgess and Maclean). Even when Maclean (Homer) was exposed, and escorted to Moscow by Burgess who just a few days before had been staying with Philby in Washington, DC, — even then, Philby was able to stammer through the interrogations and convince the other chaps in the Service that he was innocent. “I know his people.”

MI5 are characterised here as chippy professional types (“players” in cricketing terms) as opposed to the “gentlemen” of MI6. MI5 were convinced of Philby’s guilt, seeing through his clubbable façade, but were thwarted at every turn by the Sixers, even up to the end. Whereas Five wanted to nail him and put him on trial (surely he would have hanged for seeing to the deaths of so many), Six were more inclined to offer him a deal and then let him escape, by conspicuously not watching him or his Beirut flat, even after he had confessed.

(Theory: if Elliott had handed Philby a loaded pistol, with an admonition to “do the right thing,” suspect Philby would have shot Elliott.)

How serious was all this? Thanks to Philby, the Soviets were able to round up and execute all of the non-communist anti-Nazi networks in Eastern Germany. This meant that the potential opposition to communist rule in Germany was filleted. Anti-Soviet fighters sent, Bay-of-Pigs style, into other Communist bloc countries such as Albania were immediately caught, and their friends and families rounded up and executed. The post-war history of Europe was shaped by these events, and the anti-Soviet resistance was fatally weakened. Philby passed on everything. His friendship with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA gave him access to American secrets and operational details. Angleton became so paranoid after Philby was exposed that he did untold damage to the inner culture of the CIA.

The damage done to the British establishment was also fatal. They lost their legitimacy, they lost the respect of the public, and at the end of the 60s, Murdoch moved in for the kill. Of course, they’re still there, in their hollowed-out way, the red-faced public school Oxbridge boys (mostly boys), but they’re mere hand puppets for the corporations, aren’t they? And they no longer feel that their privilege and upbringing makes them destined for public service: they’re in it for the money. It’s a fine difference, the difference between seeing yourself at the top but still part of a society and the difference between seeing yourself at the top and not connected to society.

The key message of the Philby affair should be that the British people have nothing to lose by getting rid of these people. They’re not smarter, they’re not better, they don’t deserve to be and cannot be trusted to be in charge of anything. And as to all that secrecy, it turns out that most of it was kept secret simply to avoid embarrassment. No threat to national security (which was already damaged): just red faces all round, so let’s avoid a scandal.

The book has a couple of extra goodies: an Afterword by John Le Carré, which is a lot more than just a paragraph or two – it’s a quite detailed transcription of Le Carré’s own conversations with Elliott; and a collection of fascinating photographs. There’s nothing quite like staring into the eyes of people who were involved in significant historic events. One person you don’t see pictured, however, is Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet diplomat defector who, along with his wife, was betrayed by Philby, spirited back to Moscow wrapped in bandages, and erased from history (along with his family and that of his wife).

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